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Free Speech, Now That Speech is Free

Speech is indeed effectively free in the age of YouTube. So that does undermine the scarcity argument traditionally used for the (now-defunct) “fairness doctrine” and the like. But some conservative pundits, like Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal today, argue this makes political campaign contribution limits both obsolete and unconstitutional. Why Campaign Political Speech Restrictions on Unions and Corporations Make No Sense [WSJ.com].

The problem is that while speech is free, campaign $$ is not. Crovitz equates money with political speech, something the Supreme Court did (erroneously in my view) way back in the 1970s in upholding some, but not all, Watergate-era campaign spending and contribution limits. That does not mean, as he implies, that restricting corporate political contributions is “silly,” because Cravitz’s own analysis shows that it is communication where technology has leveled the playing field, not political campaigns, with all their expensive pre-Web 2.0 trappings like air travel, rally planing and event staging.

In his defense, what Crovitz appears to be saying is that bans on pure corporate political speech, rather than monetary contributions, are problematic:

Whatever the arguments for blocking direct contributions by corporations and unions, McCain-Feingold goes beyond this and directly limits First Amendment speech. The Constitution doesn’t promise “equal” speech, just the freedom to speak.

I agree with that. But the premise that “direct contributions” are different should be the start, not a footnote, to this debate.

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